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Bertucci's
At Bertucci’s, the bread is served with oil that has cheese in it, but when you tell a server that you have a dairy allergy, they know to bring out a separate oil without cheese.

How Italian Restaurants Can Accommodate Food Allergies

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Communication and menu tweaks can help operators become more allergy-friendly.
By Liz Barrett Foster March 2019 Sapore

Once every three minutes, a food allergy sends someone to the emergency room, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that eight foods or food groups account for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions in the United States: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.

Over the years, restaurants have become more aware of food allergies and how to address consumer concerns. Last week, online resource site AllergyEats released its annual list of the top 10 most allergy-friendly restaurant chains based on consumer reviews. This year, Maggiano’s Little Italy, Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant, and The Flatbread Company were three Italian restaurants that made the list.

Being considered an allergy-friendly restaurant doesn’t mean that restaurants must call out menu items containing allergens or create separate allergy menus, says AllergyEats founder and CEO Paul Antico. “Being allergy-friendly is more about knowing how to customize a menu item to accommodate an allergy,” he says. “Allergy-friendly restaurants have a staff that’s trained to ask about allergies; communication protocols in place between staff, management; and the kitchen; procedures in place to handle allergy specific menu orders; and a staff that knows what’s in the food.”

Examining Italian food and allergies

Antico says Italian cuisine can be easier than most others when trying to find an allergy-friendly dish. For egg and dairy allergies, noodles and cheese-free options are usually safe. “If the restaurant is using egg-free noodles, someone who is allergic to eggs can have olive oil on top of spaghetti for an easy option,” he says. “Once you get into the pizza realm, it becomes more difficult for those allergic to dairy, but that’s where places like Mellow Mushroom and Blaze Pizza shine with their dairy-free cheese offerings.”

Another example is at Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant, where Antico says that the restaurant’s famous bread is served with oil that has cheese in it, but when you tell a server that you have a dairy allergy, they know to bring out a separate oil without cheese.

AllergyEats founder and CEO Paul Antico

Gluten can be a real differentiator when it comes to Italian because of the bread, pasta, and pizza. Some restaurants offer gluten-free pizza and pasta and also understand that those foods cannot be prepared or served using the same equipment or dishes.

“People will say that peanut and tree nut allergy sufferers will have the easiest time at an Italian restaurant, [but] being careful with bread, pesto and desserts; and dairy can be hard,” Antico says. “That’s what differentiates a really good allergy-friendly Italian restaurant from one that’s not so good; they know how to handle any situation.”

Making the guest comfortable

Beyond menu options, being an allergy-friendly establishment necessitates a certain mindset wherein employees are willing and able to accommodate diners with dietary restrictions.

“Wait staff should start the conversation by asking if anyone at the table has an allergy and then know what to do with that information once they have it,” he says.

At the bottom of The Flatbread Company’s menu is a simple line stating, “Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy.” Maggiano’s offers a gluten-free pasta and places an asterisk next to menu items that contain nuts. At Bertucci’s, the regular menu calls out “gluten sensitive” items and offers a separate, exclusively gluten-sensitive menu for those who have a wheat allergy, Celiac Disease, or are simply gluten intolerant.

The AllergyEats website asks reviewers questions about whether the restaurant was able to accommodate them, how knowledgeable the staff were, and how comfortable the diners felt during their visit.

Training staff and boosting business

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control’s Environmental Health Specialists Network showed that less than half of the restaurant staff interviewed had received training on food allergies. Furthermore, most restaurants did not have dedicated areas or equipment for preparing allergen-free food.

One promising finding from the study was that the majority of polled staff did have ingredient lists or recipes for some or all of their menu items. That trend is in line with anecdotal evidence from AllergyEats, which has some restaurant operators reporting that roughly one out of every two tables has a guest with food allergies.

“Nine years ago, I was able to prove that a restaurant that’s allergy-friendly can make roughly 25 percent more in profits than one that’s not allergy friendly,” Antico says. “I would claim that the number is much higher now.”

As allergies grow and customization preferences increase, Antico hopes operators will answer the call.

“If you’re in the restaurant business and can’t accommodate allergies, or frankly, even just preferences, you’re losing a ton of market share,” he says.